Croatian cluster ecosystems and their potential: how to booster digital transformation and interregional cooperation
On 29 and 30 November 2022, the European Commission (DG GROW) and the European Association of Development Agencies (EURADA), in collaboration with the European Cluster Collaboration Platform (ECCP), organised a two-day workshop in Zagreb, Croatia. The Clusters Meet Regions event took place in the framework of AGORADA+, EURADA’s flagship event that focuses on the exchange of regional development ideas. More than 100 participants from 14 countries joined the workshop, exchanged best practices, and found new potential partners.
Zagreb is a place of innovation and start-ups, making it an ideal location to bring together and connect stakeholders from Croatia, the EU and beyond. The main aim of the event was to explore how clusters, regional development agencies and other stakeholders can foster stronger collaboration in the implementation of regional and national economic development policies.
The opening session included representatives from the European Commission, EURADA and the Minister of Regional Development and EU Funds from Croatia.
According to Bogdan Chelariu, President of EURADA: “Competition from third world countries is increasing and they have different ways of organising their economy. In our economy, clusters play an important role, helping to make SMEs more competitive on the world stage.”
During his speech, Mislav Kovač, representative from the Croatian Ministry of Regional Development and EU Funds, mentioned that: “The basic aim of the industrial transition is to enhance the regional value chain. Clusters will play a key role in forming the strategic partnerships needed for this.”
Ulla Engelmann, Head of Unit for Industrial Forum, Alliances and Clusters, European Commission (DG GROW), closed the opening session by presenting some EU initiatives to tackle the green & digital transition. These included the recovery and resilience facility, RePowerEU and the Winter Preparedness Package.
The following panel discussion focused on how regional development agencies can facilitate cluster development though S3 priorities. According to Marija Rajaković, Head of Sector at the Croatian Ministry of Regional Development: “In Croatia, we have very unbalanced regional development. The Pannonian, Adriatic and North Croatia regions are developing at a rate that is 60% slower than the EU’s overall development. This is why we have introduced the process of industrial transition. It will give these regions the chance to become more competitive players.”
During the discussion, Tina Pahić, Coordinator at the Croatian Chamber of Economy, Enterprise Europe Network Croatia, highlighted that: “European and Croatian companies need to become more environmentally, socially and economically sustainable. Having a large network of experts is essential for achieving these objectives and supporting SMEs.”
Ingrid Meijer, Project Manager at Business Development Tech, Oost NL said: “Our regional development agency focuses on internalisation as it offers internationally operating companies a ‘soft landing’ in our region.”
Furthermore, Dr. Jan-Philipp Kramer, Team Leader of ‘Data & Policy’ in the ECCP introduced a new session debate focused on how to improve collaboration between clusters and national/regional authorities. He presented the recently published Input Paper on Croatia, explaining that “Croatia can be defined as an agriculture-driven economy with an industrial ecosystem specialisation in agri-textile and agri-tourism.” Moreover, according to his findings, “Croatia is still emerging, and it will be important to provide continuous public support and increase professional service levels while orchestrating the cluster ecosystem.”
Marina Dujmović Vuković, Director of ZADRA NOVA, proposed that: “To overcome any challenges associated with the collaboration between clusters and public authorities, it is essential to raise awareness, improve the number of regional development agencies and boost the industrial transition of Croatian regions."
Furthermore, Goran Basarac, President of the Croatian Defence and Security Industry Cluster explained that: “From 2007 to 2015, the defence & security sector was excluded from the EU structural investment funds. Between 2014 and 2020, different opportunities emerged, especially through the Smart Specialisation Strategy. That was an important chance to upgrade the defence & security sector through European structural investments funds while focusing on R&D projects. In that moment, the industry started to connect and work together.” According to Mr. Basarac, their cluster includes 72 organisations and is now the main communication channel between defence & security sector and public bodies. They also support EU projects and programmes, working directly with the Ministry of the Interior of Croatia.
Following the networking lunch, the afternoon started with an engaging pitching session that offered many collaborative opportunities. This format, that characterizes our Clusters Meet Regions events, allows clusters and regions to present themselves, their projects and collaboration proposals in five minutes. A total of seven presentations were given by representatives coming from different sectors.
The next panel session focused on the health and welfare innovation ecosystems and clusters. Speakers presented the most recent challenges and solutions relating to cross-border cooperation.
Andrea Čović Vidović, from the European Commission Representation in Croatia, gave a preview of the next EU global health strategy, which was officially announced the following day. According to Alina Capitanu, Project Manager of MEDIC_NEST (Romania): “Health innovation is about new and improved health innovation policies, health food dedicated services and technologies and also about how we deliver services to our patiens. For this reaso,n health innovation has to adddress efficiency, effectiveness and quality, but also sustainability in terms of the way healthcare is delivered. It means that our services have to be affordable for our patients.”
According to Dusko Cerovec, Chief of Cardiac Rehabilitation Dept., Hospital for Medical Rehabilitation Krapinske Toplice: “To create innovative responses and better solutions to everyday challenges, it is essential to think out of the box. The medical system includes both care providers and patients. We need to improve both conditions with better data analysis and connections, as well as better access to services and quality standards. These are not always technical solutions, but they might require a change in organisation or even in business models.”
Anja Barišić, EDIH AI4Health, Coordinator for Partners, Ruđer Bošković Institute: “AI is the new main boost in digitalisation. The vast majority or research in AI area is related to healthcare, but very few of the solutions have been put into practice. SMEs keep running in the same problems, and this must be solved in a central way (pan-european/national or regional). The European Digital Innovation Hubs help in this mission, provide expertise to each SMEs in need for support.”
The last panel discussion of the day focused on clusters driving the digitalisation in key Croatian sectors. Key topics were: Artificial Intelligence, gaming industry, cultural/creative industries and tourism.
Krešimir Partl, State Secretary in the Ministry of Culture and Media: “In some fields, Croatia takes the leading role at the EU level. In the gaming industry, for instance, we were the first in 2009 to draft a law on audio-visual activities and to include a gaming cluster in the process. This really improved the dialogue and enhanced the industry.” He also highlighted that: “Croatia knows that everything is going digital, and we took that into consideration while drafting the recovery and resilience fund. We included millions of grants for the cultural and creative industry with a specific focus on digital transformation and support to make SMEs more and more international.”
Ivan Venturi, Coordinator of Bologna Game Farm, said: “Business and technical skills are essential in our gaming industry. For this reason, we work with SMEs reviewing the team, their project and strategy. We support their training and produce together their vertical slice and in the last one they pitch their vertical slice to publishers.”
According to Aleksandar Gavrilovic, Secretary General of Croatian Game Development: “Sectors are interconnected nowadays more than ever, and gaming is not an exception. Videogames are not just AI or engineers, they are also about writers, artists, animators & more. This industry generates many jobs and growth.”
Moreover, all panellists agreed on the need to improve networking to boost knowledge sharing and exchange of best practices.